Court rules ethics watchdog was created unconstitutionally

ALBANY — A state commission that investigates ethical violations in New York was created unconstitutionally, an appeals court said Thursday in a ruling in favor of former Gov. Andrew Cuomo that targets the watchdog agency’s enforcement powers.

Cuomo is fighting in court an attempt by the state Commission on Ethics and Lobbying in Government to force him to forfeit $5 million he got for writing a book about his administration’s efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cuomo argues the commission lacks authority under the state constitution to prosecute him.

The Appellate Division of state Supreme Court unanimously upheld a lower court in ruling in favor of Cuomo, with judges writing that the creation of the panel “though well intentioned in its actions, violated the bedrock principles of separation of powers.”

In a joint statement, the chairman and executive director of the ethics commission said they would seek to appeal the decision to the state’s highest court and to put the ruling on hold while litigation continues.

“The Commission will continue to promote compliance with the state’s

ethics and lobbying laws

as this matter works its way through the full appellate process,” said Chair Frederick A. Davie and Executive Director Sanford N. Berland.

The commission was formed by the Legislature and current Gov. Kathy Hochul in 2022 to investigate possible ethics and lobbying violations by state officials, employees, lobbyists and their clients.

It replaced a previous ethics commission widely criticized for not being independent enough. Lawmakers said they wanted to restore public trust in government after Cuomo’s 2021 resignation in a sexual harassment scandal.

A lower court judge said in September that the law creating the commission made it too independent from the governor under terms of the state constitution. The judge said the enforcement of ethics laws is a power that belongs to the executive branch, yet the governor cannot control commission members, force them to explain their actions or remove them for neglecting their duties.

“This has been a three-year exercise to bend the law to fit the political will of those in charge and hopefully after this second — and unanimous — court decision, this partisan and baseless prosecution will finally end,” Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi said in a statement after the Thursday ruling.

Cuomo has battled both this commission and its predecessor, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, over his book earnings. State officials have claimed Cuomo hadn’t kept a promise not to use any state resources on the book. Cuomo has denied those allegations.

Cuomo resigned in August 2021 after the attorney general released the results of an investigation that concluded the then-governor had sexually harassed at least 11 women. Cuomo has denied the allegations.


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